Several years ago I started a series in which I argued against the traditional Protestant articulation of justification by faith. My understanding of Paul’s view of the law was still in a state of flux, however, so I never finished the series. At some point I want to go back and revise my argument in those posts, but until then I thought it would be helpful to put my current understanding in a series of short propositions.
Practically none of this is original, of course. My reading of Paul has been influenced most dramatically by N.T. Wright, as well as by E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and Richard B. Hays. But I don’t know that anyone has put all these points together into precisely the same shape that I have, so I’d love to hear any questions or critiques.
1) The starting point for Paul’s understanding of justification is that it is eschatological, referring to the declaration that God will make on the last day, and that it is by works, a verdict made according to the whole life lived. As Romans 2:13-16 goes, “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified… in the day when will God judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” This passage says Christ will be the one making the judgment, so it can’t be passed off as merely a law-based hypothetical. It’s a fundamental part of Paul’s gospel. What he goes on to show in Romans 3 is not that the basis of this verdict has changed, but that through the work of Jesus it has moved from the future to the present, so that God can justify his true people in advance of the final day.
2) Second Temple Judaism was not the religion of “self-help moralism” or “works-righteousness” that Protestant theology has long believed it to be. The Jews of the period believed that they were counted as members of God’s family more by their ethnicity than by their works per se, if by “works” one means moral achievements. Obedience to the law was seen as necessary, but the fact that God made covenant with Abraham, declaring that the whole world would be blessed through his descendants, meant that those descendants, by virtue of their relation to Abraham, must be in the covenant. This was why things like circumcision and dietary laws were so important; because they defined a Jew as a Jew, separate from the pagans and inalienably a part of “Israel,” God’s chosen people, those who would be saved on the last day. Even amongst the most extreme groups like the Shammaites and the Essenes, keeping the law was understood as responsive and confirming to God’s merciful covenant; it was not a matter of earning one’s own righteousness by climbing a ladder of merit. It is this ethnocentric sense of unconditional election which Paul deconstructs in Romans 2, not a proto-Pelagian belief in salvation by works.
3) When Paul refers to the “works of the law” in places like Romans 3:20, he is thinking in terms of the ethnic boundary-markers of Torah, practices which had become symbolic badges of membership, like Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws, things that defined a Jew as a participant of the covenant over against their pagan neighbors, or even a more observant Jew over a less observant Jew. This is the sense which the phrase also carries in the Qumran text 4QMMT. So when Paul contrasts “faith” and “works”, the negative side of that contrast involves those aspects of Torah which in first century Judaism had ironically become ways of avoiding moral effort (e.g. Rom 2:1-3, 17-24; cf. Matt 23:23-28).
4) The Greek word pistis, for Paul, does not refer to mere belief in God through either the cognitive acceptance of truths about him and/or a spiritual encounter with him. It actually has ethical content to it. This is especially clear in Romans 3:3: “For what if some were unfaithful (apisteo)? Will their faithlessness (apistia) nullify the faithfulness (pistis) of God?” Paul is here addressing directly the question of God’s righteousness related to Israel’s disobedience. If Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant, as Paul has shown they have (2:1-29), then what does this mean for God? Will he turn his back on them as they have on him, or will his arms remain outstretched to any who might return? Paul is resolute: God will remain steadfast, pistis. It hardly needs saying that Romans 3:3 sets the stage for Romans 3:21. But if Israel’s failure here is called their apistia, and God’s steadfastness is called his pistis, then why should the pistis of those who are justified later on in the chapter be defined as mere belief? God’s pistis is his commitment to his saving purpose, his faithfulness. Therefore human pistis (or lack thereof, as in 3:3) is a responsive commitment to that saving purpose, an answering faithfulness.
5) In the key passages on “justification by faith” like Romans 3:21-26, Galatians 2:16 and 3:22-25, the phrase most often translated “faith in Christ” should actually be translated “the faithfulness of Christ”. Thus, the sense of Romans 3:22 goes like this: “God’s righteousness, his covenant justice, has been unveiled through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all who believe”. This translation has three major advantages over the traditional rendering. First, it fixes the redundancy of Paul’s saying “by faith” and then adding again “to all who believe”. Second, it gives the apocalyptic unveiling of God’s righteousness a definitive historic content as a personal action of God, instead of defining it purely in terms of the belief of the saints. And third, it gives the responsive pistis of the saints its appropriate antecedent, the work of the Messiah, instead of letting it dangle without any controlling story in terms of the redemption which God had achieved.
6) In a verse like Romans 3:28, “justified by faith” is Paul’s shorthand summation for the whole story which he has just outlined: the redemptive justice of God, revealed by the pistis of Jesus, to all who respond in pistis. This is why, both in Romans 3:21-28 and in Galatians 3:22-25, Paul refers to “faith” as an event in history, an event to which the law and the prophets looked forward and which we now look back upon in joyful gratitude; because for Paul, the word refers first and foremost to the apocalyptic event of the Messiah’s death and resurrection.
7) From all of the above, we can see that the actual contrast between “works” and “faith” in Paul is not between (a) moral effort and (b) mere belief, but rather between (a) Israel’s unfaithfulness and the inability of the law to lift them out of their plight, and (b) the contrasting faithfulness of Israel’s Messiah, which has unveiled the covenant justice of God to any and all who will respond in believing obedience to his call, Jew and Gentile alike. And as Paul goes on to lay out in Romans 5-8, even our responsive faithfulness is the work of grace, by the power of the Spirit as the result of Christ’s own action on our behalf. So it all begins and ends with God. As he concludes in 8:3-4, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”